Founder of Texas Innocence Project, Jeff Blackburn, Quits In Protest

Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel and one of the founders of the Innocence Project of Texas, has had enough. He’s resigned from the organization,* and explains why**:

When we founded this project 10 years ago we were part of a movement. That movement was a loose coalition of groups devoted to freeing the innocent and changing the criminal justice system from state to state.

We did our part. We got people exonerated. We got good legislation passed. We made history with the Tim Cole case. We stayed small, democratic, and focused on reforming the Texas system. We created some great relationships with law enforcement officials and forensic scientists. We built a  resilient, authentic, and independent outfit.

While we were doing that, the New York-based Innocence Project went from being a small nonprofit to an organization with a multi-million dollar budget. As its size grew, so did its appetite for money and its need to control the reform movement. What was once a movement has now become a business.

The Innocence Project now thrives on large contributions from the ultra-rich. It is full of Wall Street types and celebrities- this year the organization is even honoring a potentate from Goldman Sachs at an exclusive gathering in New York.

I said over a year ago that the interests of our Texas group and the people in New York would diverge more and more as time passed. I strongly urged us to dissociate from them by declaring our independence, changing our name, and returning to our roots as an independent group.

You all disagreed. I did not fault you for it, my friends – ours was an honest difference of opinion.

Now, however, that disagreement has become too much for me to bear. I believe that staying connected with the New York people will compromise the work of criminal justice reform in this state. I want to keep handling cases, working for change, and improving forensic science in this state. I just don’t feel like I can do that effectively if I am identified with the name “Innocence Project” and the people in New York. They can keep their $100,000.00 “VIP” tables at galas, their friends from Goldman Sachs, and their need for control. It is not for me.

Of course, I respect your decision to stay with that group even though I disagree with it. I hope you respect mine to move on.

In one sense, this is the price of success, as the Innocence Project has not only done amazing work and had incredible success, but has become a cause célèbre juggernaut in the process. And those involved have become celebrities (not to mention pretty wealthy), and gala affairs are what celebrities and their organizations do.

But wearing tuxedos and honoring potentates from Goldman Sachs for their financial contributions isn’t necessarily what criminal justice reformers do.

Whether you agree with Jeff or not, and many will join the others of the IPOT who see the bank accounts as a means to achieve an important and valuable end, you have to admire Jeff’s integrity. I do. Very much. You did good, brother Jeff.

*  Edit 5/21/15: The original announcement of Jeff’s resignation at IPOT included a link to Jeff’s letter. It has since been removed, as reflecting poorly on the Innocence Project.  This is not, apparently, tolerated.  Should the link here to Jeff’s resignation go dead for some odd reason, a copy will be posted here in its place.

** Edit 5/22/15: IPOT has not only removed the link to Jeff’s resignation letter, but has now remove the letter itself, and so I’ve replaced the link with a saved copy of Jeff’s letter. That said, the removal of the link, and now letter, is itself a sad reflection on IPOT being substantially less than transparent about Jeff’s resignation.

H/T The Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett

48 thoughts on “Founder of Texas Innocence Project, Jeff Blackburn, Quits In Protest

  1. Jeff Gamso

    When I was finishing up my last year in law school (or maybe it was after graduation and while I was studying for the bar, but it’s been decades and my memory for such details – well, that’s why our clients have trouble remembering exactly what happened that afternoon a year or a decade or more ago), Jeff called and offered me a job. I’d never met the guy and hadn’t sent him a resume, but he’d asked around. He showed wisdom, and perhaps a touch of recklessness, even then.

    When I finally met him, 15 or so years later, I reminded him of that. The amazing thing is that he remembered.

    Hell of a lawyer. Hell of a guy.

    1. William Doriss

      Yea, well, how comes we don’t have more like him?
      Huh, hUh, HUH? Talk is cheap, it really is. (Depending
      upon what the definition of *is* is! ) I’m stunned, as usual.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Yup, not too many potentates out there that would rather cut off their right arms than live under tyranny. Strange really.


  3. Wrongway

    I just have to wonder, ..
    Is it really a bad idea to take money from the ultra-rich in order to further promote a cause ?
    I mean, why not have a few reps from the IPOT go up there & try to get some of that ‘swag’ for more resources to conduct even more investigations ?

    I see his point. But!!, when he started this organization, I believed that the goal was to get the innocent out of jail, period. So the ‘movement’ has morphed into something else.
    So What ?
    Others that might not be aligned with the core beliefs of this individual ( Jeff ) are to be shunned for wanting to help ?

    I don’t know the inner workings of ‘The Project’, but their books are pretty good..

    And while I applaud his standing for his own principles, I just wonder if having money coming into a worthy cause such as this is such a bad thing ??

    just a thought..

    1. SHG Post author

      I think you’ve over-simplified the issue by thinking it only has to do with “taking money from the ultra-rich.” It has to do with catering to the egos and desires of ultra-rich donors, who have themselves engaged in conduct that hurts the people IP sought to save, by honoring them and giving them awards, for example.

      You can’t enjoy the big money without becoming enmeshed in the culture in which big money exists. And from there, it goes deeper, such as the cult of celebrity that surrounds these heroes of the great unwashed. Big money doesn’t come free.

    2. Lori

      I think you miss the point. It is not “representatives” from ALL the Innocence Projects benefitting from the rich investors, it is the Innocence Project of New York.

      It takes away from their mission because if they are busy socializing, they are not working to free the innocent.

      Most of The Innocence Projects work their fingers to the bone quietly, without fanfare…and then there is New York.

    3. mad dog

      Good in theory but the mega rich rarely give something for nothing or just for the cause. Sure some do but some will want to interfere. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jeff quit so soon after the IP got involved with the Adnan Syed case. I mean this is a terrible case for the IP but celebs and New York scenesters like Sarah Koenig were pushing the case on the IP. I can see why he got sick of it all.

  4. Jaye Ramsey Sutter

    Mr Blackburn is correct. I have always known him to be a man of impeccable character. I believe his assessment of the situation is correct and I congratulate him on his decision. I hope he is able to continue his great skills in an avenue that satisfies him and Justice.

    1. William Doriss

      There is no Justice. That is the point. It’s just us,… a concept, if you will, a Platonic ideal which exists in the ether somewhere out there. It’s not real, any more than The Bill of Rights is real. That’s why the Constitutional Convention of 1789 (?) struggled so much with it, and why there were regional divisions. If I recall, it was the Southern contingents who wanted more guaranteed protections for individuals vis-a-vis Government. They were called Jeffersonians against the big government, big money Alexander Hamiltons and John Adamses of the North.

      The irony here is that Big Money, Big Law, Big Whatever cannot exist without poverty of the masses; not only poverty of funds (bank accounts, stocks and bonds) but poverty of *rights*, poverty of the right to be left alone in one’s own home and place of busyness. Innocence projects are designed to spring the so-called innocent who have been wrongly convicted and incarcerated. But as a society, we need to incarcerate and impoverish the lower classes in order for the righteous to feel rich and powerful. Legal process is the means for doing this, as Martha Minow points out in her tedious book, Making All the Difference, Inclusion, Exclusion and American Law, 1990. Now that is a catchy title, irregardless of what’s in the book. American Law is the part I like.

      Look, if there were no crimes committed by Americans in America, they could be taken “off the books” and new crimes would have to be invented by the rentier classes in order to incarcerate (wrongly?) the underclass. The Ferguson, MO debacle and other recent instances of *police state* activity demonstrate this succinctly,… to my way of thinking. Innocence is a will o’ the wisp, and the moneyed classes know this, but it won’t stop them from contributing to the *cause*, because it’s water off the ducks back as far as they were concerned. They never fought in the trenches the way Mr. Blacburn did. Some of them are not even veterans of the armed forces of the good ol’ U.S. of A. They are freeloading, and shameless about it. (“Where are the customers’ yachts?”)
      Some of the *innocent* who have been sprung may indeed be guilty,… of something. We’re all guilty of something. The question is: Who gets to serve time, and how much time and restitution are required?!?
      It’s all about The Money. There is no Justice,… just us.
      End of Story.

        1. William Doriss

          That’s what strong French roast does to your brain after a good nite’s sleep. My apologies to Jaye.

      1. Lori

        That is absurd.

        Out of all the people that The Innocence Project has helped exonerate exactly ONE has gone on to be involved in a murder. That was in Wisconsin.

        A very wise man told me once that just because a person is innocent of the crime for which they were convicted, it doesn’t mean they are all decent people.

        Just stop with you suppositions. “We are all guilty of something.”

        Speak for yourself, your guilty conscience is showing.

        1. William Doriss

          Yea, I jaywalked Fifth Avenue once, and I cheated the IRS out of $_____, (not telling!) on another occasion. I may have exceeded the speed limit on the LIE as well when I was drunk out of my mind after a *blind date* with Lee Krasner.
          I also cheated on my wife–shussh–for which I’m deeply regretful. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. You are a bloody idiot, and I’m surprised SHG posted you.
          I think our Host likes to stir the pot and get everybody all riled up on a slow day, if you catch my drift?
          Take a deep breath my Dear; it is not quite the End of the World. But we’re close. I happen to be a *Christian*, and we Christians proclaim/believe that we’re all born *sinners*, i.e. “wrongdoers” to one extent or another. Show me a perfect man, and I’ll show you Jesus. Ha. Please re-read my post when you are of sound mind. I do not retract one word. Coulda have embellished it further, however. I am not Shakespeare, but am an above-average wordsmith. If that counts for anything?!?
          P.S., lawyers fight their battles with words rather than swords, in the normal course of events. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are the exception which proves the Rule.
          On the New Jersey side of the Hudson River two hundred and fifteen years ago, for the record.
          Finally, what is the name of that Wise Man again?

          1. Lori

            I DID read your post, you self-righteous jerk.

            My brother is wrongfully convicted on death row. He is innocent, in case you didn’t catch that. His innocence has been proven forensically, but not yet heard. We are waiting on a briefing schedule from the court.

            The Innocence Project has been crucial to my brother’s case and needs people like Jeff Blackburn and Tucker Carrington. Without them, my brother would likely have been executed this year for a crime that NEVER took place, instead of preparing to go back down to the trial court because of newly discovered evidence and disgusting Brady Violations.

            You put that in YOUR pipe and smoke it.

            That Mr. Blackburn is leaving because he is uncomfortable with the rich and famous bestowing their wealth on the New York faction is a shame and a tragedy, but understandable.

            However, what can one do but wish him well, and believe he is headed for bigger, better things?

            That you are so blaise and snide in your comments it is truly unpalatable. I wish you had to walk in my brother’s nightmare for just one week and see how snide you are afterwards.

            BTW, you are not an “above-average wordsmith”, you are full of hot air. There’s a difference.

            There is not a thing unsound about my mind. And you call me a “bloody idiot”? Sure. Pot meet kettle.

        2. Sgt. Schultz

          Lori, much as Doriss is a dick for calling you names, you went a bit bonkers because he wrote “we’re all guilty of something.” We are, at least anyone with half a brain recognizes it. That’s the whole “three felonies a day” thing. It’s really not controversial, and it had nothing to do with you or your brother.

          And much as we’re sorry about what happened to your brother, and certainly wish him (and you) the best, it’s doesn’t mean you get to get crazy over nothing. Doriss wasn’t slighting Jeff Blackburn. That’s just his way. There was no need for you to go after him the first place, so don’t complain too much that you stuck your nose in and he smacked back.

  5. L

    I suppose a Goldman Sachs potentate is the exact diametrical opposite of IP’s intended beneficiaries.

    The former is free despite being a career criminal, while the latter is incarcerated despite being innocent.

  6. Chris Hitz-Bradley

    I have mixed feelings about this gentleman’s position. On the one hand, I understand and agree with his concern about being co-opted by having rich folks giving money. There’s going to be a tendency, however unconscious, to try to please the folks giving you money. But on the other hand, I was president of an death penalty abolition group that had no money and many of its members wanted it that way. When I applied for grants, I got responses like “We don’t need no big fancy organization. We just need to roll up our sleeves.” I was involved with other groups that had the same outlook: they reveled in the organization’s poverty and considered it a sign of integrity and superiority. Having grown up poor, I can tell you, poor is poor, there’s nothing inherently good about it. It sucks for more reasons than I have room here to go into. Not having money means there are many, many, many things you can’t do. Having money means you can do many more things. It really is that straightforward. The trick is keeping your integrity as a group or person while taking money from the same folks who are the root of the problem, even if they themselves aren’t completely aware of it.
    As a lapsed Marxist, I agree with the class analysis made by others: as long as there’s ruling class, there’ll always be a lower class whose labor supports it and which is subject to the control of the ruling class.

    1. Jerryskids

      Not having money means there are many, many, many things you can’t do. Having money means you can do many more things.

      You get money so that you can do things, but “getting money” easily becomes the only thing that you’re doing. I think that’s the point of disagreement – is the Innocence Project primarily a project to free the innocent or primarily a project to raise money? There’s a whole field of study on how systems work and it seems the primary purpose of any system is to perpetuate itself – regardless of its stated purpose.

  7. Robb Fickman

    In the summer of 1980 I was doing volunteer work in the Houston ACLU Office. I was compiling statistics about
    HPD’s illegal detentions. One day a chain-smoking guy From Amarillo showed up. He was brash, rolled his own cigarettes and disliked abusive cops as much as me. We became instant friends and we were roommates in law school. He never stopped talking about or fighting injustice He convinced me to join him as a Student Defender. When we stood up for Iranian students at a campus kangaroo court, he declared the court ” a nullity.” They threatened to kick us out of law school, but they backed down. On May Day we hung clench-fisted worker posters all around the law school. When the SPLC sought student volunteers to serve Klan members with subpoenas we were first in line. He has always been for justice and he will never sell out. He gave me a book once and inscribed it, ” To Robb
    Friend, Roommate, Asshole- Jeff”

    There is only one Jeff Blackburn. We have been friends now for over 30 years. As the saying goes, ” if he tells you tomorrow is Christmas, you can hang your stocking.” If Jeff says they have sold out and lost their way, they have sold out and lost their way.
    I will stake my hat on it!

    Robb Fickman

    1. SHG Post author

      Thanks. I was prepared for this eventuality, but hoped that IPOT would have had the guts to leave it up and be honest and transparent about Jeff’s leaving.

      Jeff’s issues with IPOT are one thing. IPOT’s effort to disappear Jeff and his issues by removing his resignation letter are a very different thing, and perhaps a far worse reflection on the internal problems facing the Innocence Project. If anything, they confirm and reinforce Jeff’s point.

      1. William Doriss

        All links work for me, a couple of minutes ago. Try them again.
        I like Fickman’s testimonial above: A True Friend.
        However, I think Blackburn might have hung in there. Sometimes the work itself gets *old*, and you just want to “move on”. When the Going gets tough, the Tough get going!?!

        1. SHG Post author

          The links work for you because I fixed them to go to my copy, Bill. This computer-y stuff confusing you? And as for what you think Jeff should have done, there may be a reason why nobody asked you. When you found a state Innocence Project and become its chief counsel, you get to make your choices. Until you do, you don’t get a vote.

          1. William Doriss

            Aye, Aye, Captain! Nobody understands the *chain-of-command* better than me. Having said that, I’m “entitled” to my Opinions, of which I have many. I could care less; let the man do what he wants to do.

  8. Dennis Murphy

    Reading his letter reminded me of the recent situation in which NACDL got on the dole of the Koch Brothers for mass incarceration and similar reform. There were joint communiques and editorials about “strange bedfellows.” I was surprised not to see any debate whatsoever on the NACDL list-serv. I wrote asking a question or two about the Koch’s generosity and the “big tent” concept that was being promoted. I immediately got a friendly telephone call from Ted Simon, the NACDL President encouraging me to look at the big picture and asking me to sign up more people to NACDL for the activities under the tent. I detected apprehension in Ted’s voice that a brush fire of discontent might not be in NACDL’s interests. Shades of Jeff Blackburn.

    1. SHG Post author

      The NACDL has gotten in bed with a number of curious suitors and questionable projects in the past few years. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that, but that it’s the sort of stuff that should be openly discussed in context, including the compromises that might be required to maintain a healthy financial relationship.

      Like you, I hear no discussion beyond the happy press release of what great things it’s doing. I’ve always taken that as a reflection of a docile and mindless membership, marching as directed like good, little soldiers.

      1. Robb Fickman

        I don’t know anyone who marches to NACDL orders. NACDL has at best a remote relationship with its members. NACDL does a lot of good things. What they don’t do well is lead. They don’t lead and we most assuredly don’t follow. If NACDL ever tried to order any of us to do anything, there would be a giant yawn.

        Those that run NACDL are very impressed with themselves and they have little use for our input.
        Why should they? We are after all, just the members…

        Robb Fickman

        1. SHG Post author

          And that raises the question: since the NACDL doesn’t give a damn what it’s members think, and the big machers in charge are “very impressed with themselves,” why be a member of a club that couldn’t care less about you?

          1. Robb Fickman

            Why indeed? Maybe we like to be part of something that theoretically could unite us, even if in reality it doesn’t.

            1. SHG Post author

              Maybe we just feel guilty about the fabulous wealth we make off other people’s misery, and feel some need to squander our fortune in membership fees.

            2. Robb Fickman

              I am an indentured servant. We answer the phone “Law Office of the IRS and Some Guy”. The “fabulous wealth” of which you speak has yet to arrive. I once told my ex-wife that I spent the day working on a $60 Million dollar deal. She was very excited until I told her I had spent the afternoon picking lotto numbers.

              Robb Fickman

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